Evie Carnahan and the Subversive Feminism of The Mummy

I first saw The Mummy after we recorded it off of TV one Christmas. My siblings and I must have watched it about thirty times before school started back up, and it’s become a Christmas Eve tradition every year since. I was and still am obsessed with this film. Its ravishing combination of old-school adventure, romance, and B-movie monsters is exquisite, leading at least one enthusiast I know of to quip that if they wanted to see a fourth Indiana Jones movie, they’d just put this on.

Brendan Fraser is the rugged Rick O’Connell, someone who’s more blunt and dorky than charming and charismatic but who manages to be utterly heroic, lovable and gallant all the while. John Hannah is the hapless yet well-meaning Jonathan, whose searches for treasure leave him not so much in over his head as grinning helplessly from the bottom of the lake. But if this is a latter-day take on the adventuring archaeology associated with Professor Henry Jones Jr., then this movie’s professor is Rachel Weisz’s Evie. Beloved, daring, headstrong Evie, a character in whose ambitions my youthful self found an unexpected icon.

For those who have not seen The Mummy—and if not, you have quite the treat in store—the film tells the tale of an ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep who is condemned after conspiring with his lover to murder the Pharaoh. He is buried (alive) in the supposedly mythical city of Hamunaptra, which is rumored to house the wealth of an ancient kingdom. After traveling to Hamunpatra with her brother Jonathan and American ex-soldier O’Connell to find a certain artifact, librarian and aspiring academic Evie inadvertently resurrects Imhotep. This sets in motion a curse which sees him unleash a series of Biblical plagues upon Egypt.

This may sound like your typical Hollywood—indeed, typical Indy—take on ancient myths, replete with suitably dodgy interpretation of cultures and legends. However, what makes The Mummy such an enduring delight is its sheer charm. The film is lively, witty and exudes a completely undiluted enthusiasm for the absurdity of its premise. It embraces its B-movie DNA with an earnest glee that captivates the viewer, completely immersing us in the spectacle and romanticism of the adventure onscreen. Most importantly, its characters are wonderful, and none more so than Evie—the protagonist, heroine, and unapologetic nerd around whom the entire thing revolves.

Evie (short for Evelyn) is a terrific character. She’s ambitious, smart, brave, capable, and, to quote one Margaret Carter, fully knows her value. Her portrayal in The Mummy is also brilliantly feminist. Evie is essentially a 1920s career woman. Her ambition to join the prestigious Bembridge Scholars is her primary motivator throughout the film, a passion which sets everything else into motion.

Early in the film, Evie tells Jonathan that she’s been rejected by the scholars on account of inadequate field experience. So when Jonathan gives her a mysterious artifact which leads them first to O’Connell and later Hamunaptra, she jumps at the opportunity to improve her credentials. Later, as they’re traveling along the Nile to the ancient city, Evie tells O’Connell that she’s searching for the Book of Amun-Ra, a golden artifact which she describes as a target of her “life’s pursuit.” It is in moments like this that the Mummy sets itself apart in its depiction of Evie as a female character. Evie’s ambitions are given prominence in the narrative, providing the impetus that draws everyone together. O’Connell and Jonathan have no reason to set out on the quest other than to accompany her. While the group encounters an American treasure-hunting expedition en route to their destination, their presence is coincidental and bears no influence on Evie’s goal.

The only thing compelling Evie’s quest is a desire to improve her career prospects. She never once doubts her abilities, nor does she show any need to prove herself. The film presents her as a determined and focused woman who is intrinsically aware of her worth. Crucially, while she encounters a number of derogatory remarks from men on the mission, she never doubts herself or the validity of her ambitions. The one scene in which she appears dejected is when she tells Jonathan that the Bembridge Scholars have rejected her—a key narrative decision, as it indicates that her frustration stems not from a lack of confidence in her abilities but a disappointment that they are not being recognized. Evie is allowed an unwavering belief in herself which the film never once implies is unfounded or misplaced.

This dedication to her dream positions Evie as the central protagonist of The Mummy. Her actions not only set the plot in motion but maintain it throughout. Aside from Imhotep, whose motivations are established in the film’s prologue, there comes a point when every other character is essentially responding to Evie’s actions rather than taking any of their own. Evie insists on tracking down O’Connell after discovering that Jonathan stole the artifact from him. He’s in prison and about to be hanged, but when she learns that he knows the location of Hamunaptra she immediately sets about bargaining for his release. O’Connell was, quite literally, doomed had she not shown up. When they reach Hamunaptra and clash with the trigger-happy American expedition, Evie figures out a way to undercut the other group (again, quite literally) and inadvertently discovers Imhotep’s sarcophagus. Pinching the Book of the Dead from the rival camp, she reads a passage aloud and revives the monster. Throughout all this, Evie is positioned as the most influential figure in the narrative. Simply put, without her, none of this would be happening. In this way, she is granted a primacy in the narrative which few female characters are allowed to wield.

This narrative centrality is complemented by shrewd attention to character. Evie not only sets the plot in motion but wraps it all up. Having released Imhotep, Evie is neither sidelined nor blamed. The film never once implies that this budding catastrophe is the result of hubris in her ambitions. There are no cautionary tales about over-reaching, daring to dream, or the folly of not knowing her place. In fact, Evie is the only one who wants to stand and fight. The dudes—gun-toting Americans and all—are quite happy to nope the hell out of Cairo, but Evie is determined to stand her ground, acknowledge her mistakes, and make things right. She becomes a very specific type of hero, one who both activates the primary obstacle to her goal and devises the means to deal with it.

The film is structured so as to support this. The narrative overtly illustrates that physical prowess is meaningless against the all-powerful villain, and the only thing that can save the world is book smarts. In case anyone misses the memo, it is openly acknowledged in one particularly delightful exchange. When O’Connell asks Evie why she’s come out to the desert to hunt artifacts, she exasperatedly declares that she may not be a gun-toting explorer, but she is a librarian and a gosh darn proud one at that. Her strength doesn’t stem from bullets, knives, or swords, but from knowledge, and this is celebrated as equal and worthy.

For a film so rich in old-fashioned romanticism, The Mummy is often wonderfully subversive. Evie is never “damseled”; she remains utterly in control and rich in agency throughout. After convincing O’Connell not to flee from Imhotep, she takes the group to see her boss and discovers that he’s a member of the Medjai, a secret society tasked with preventing Imhotep’s resurrection. (You had one job, etc.)

Amusingly, this society’s idea of persuading people not to go to Hamunpatra involves first torching the expeditions’ ship and then storming the camp with swords. Neither of these are effective, almost as if the film is trying to suggest that mindless violence isn’t the best deterrent. Having secured the Medjai’s help, Evie then figures out where to find the Book of Amun-Ra, which contains the incantation they need to kill Imhotep. She quips, “Take that, Bembridge Scholars!” as she deciphers the riddle, a moment of pure elation that illustrates what makes her so lovable as well as reminding us why she set out on this quest in the first place.

When the group find themselves cornered by a mob under Imhotep’s spell, she gives herself up in order to save her friends. Rather than being kidnapped or victimized, the moment is written as an important decision Evie makes for herself. It cements her heroism and centrality to the narrative, while elucidating her bravery and resourcefulness as a character. It also underlines O’Connell’s folly in attempting to lock her at the fort earlier in the film. The Mummy positions Evie’s leadership as the natural order of things, never once suggesting that its chief female character should be anything other than the architect of her own salvation.

Even with its most conventional note—the romance subplot—The Mummy manages to depict Evie in a way that breaks with tradition. She and O’Connell show interest in each other early on and there is a slightly dodgy scene of him kissing her from behind the prison bars. However, her romantic interests never supplant her commitment to her career. She doesn’t hide her ambition or personality from O’Connell and isn’t transformed into a helpless flower in his presence. If anything, O’Connell is the one who starts to downplay his gruff, rough-and-ready demeanor to appeal to her.

The film insists on allowing Evie’s intelligence to shine. Her passion and enthusiasm is depicted as stirring O’Connell’s interest without her ever setting out to win his affections. Evie’s first thought is always the quest, and the romance is played as an unexpected yet pleasant afterthought. In many other films, Evie’s presence would be tied to a male character. The love story would become her main reason for existing, and probably the fulcrum around which her limited character development revolved. In The Mummy, it is the male characters who are ancillary to Evie. Her romance is a subplot conveyed mainly in quirky asides and glances until the romantic kiss at the very end. Her body is not put on display, nor is it brutalized as a motivating tool for the male hero. Indeed, it is O’Connell who, in the final act, volunteers as punching bag in an attempt to keep Imhotep distracted while Evie finds the incantation to destroy him. She is not a reward for what could easily have been an O’Connell redemption arc, because the film isn’t about him. The Mummy gets it. It doesn’t make Evie choose between her career and a man—rather, by allowing Evie to pursue her passions, it suggests that you may well find love by doing what you love. No compromise required.

Evie is a refreshing and often inspirational character, so much so that it’s easy to forget she’s the only developed female role in this film. Imhotep’s lover, Anck-su-Namun, doesn’t appear in more than a few scenes. There is something compelling in Anck-su-Namun’s refusal to be treated as a “temple” by the Pharaoh who makes her his mistress. However, her decision to help Imhotep kill the Pharaoh, and subsequent decision to take her own life, has the effect of removing her from the narrative for much of the film. It also means that she, unfortunately, largely comes across as an object of desire for Imhotep, even as her crucial decisions in the film’s prologue grant her a degree of agency and importance in the film’s plot. In addition, Evie in one scene alludes to being half-Egyptian. This suggests that the role might have been played by a WoC, in which case Evie’s career ambitions might have taken on an added dynamic, as might her perspective on the colonialist figures and actions pervading the film.

Nevertheless, Evie is a robust and subversive character. She is presented in a bold and loving light, and her spirit and exuberance never once yields the narrative toll so often visited upon female characters. The Mummy is a warm and joyful indication of how to take classic movie DNA and upgrade it without sacrificing the basics of its appeal. It omits the self-reverential winks to the audience of many such revamps and, much like Pacific Rim, earnestly revels in its simplicity.

Universal may be attempting to sell us a monster-verse beginning with the upcoming reboot of the original classic horror film, which may itself offer something different. However, in a world which already has The Mummy—and more specifically, its pantheon of magical characters—it’s difficult to expand on perfection.

(image: Universal Pictures)

Grace Duffy is a pop culture devotée and sometime film critic currently catching up on her classic sci-fi. You can read more on her Tumblr or catch her frequent TV liveblogs on Twitter.

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Tags: contributors, The Mummy, women in film, women in movies